PARIS — A beluga whale that became a French celebrity after making a wrong turn into the River Seine had to be euthanized on Wednesday after experiencing health problems during an urgent rescue operation, authorities said.
The sparkling white marine mammal appeared deep in France last week after accidentally deviating from the normal ocean migration route that carries belugas to and from Arctic waters.
Fearing that the malnourished creature wouldn’t survive much longer in the Seine, a conservation group and vets planned to bring the lost whale to a saltwater harbor in Normandy, from where they hoped to return it to the open sea.
A team of 80 people gathered to try to save the animal’s life, and it was successfully moved Tuesday night from a river lock in Saint-Pierre-la-Garenne, west of Paris, to a refrigerated truck for the 160 kilometers (99- miles) journey to the harbor at Ouistreham.
But during the ride, the 4-meter-long (13-foot-long) whale began to have difficulty breathing, according to Florence Ollivet Courtois, a French veterinarian who worked on the rescue operation.
“During the trip, the vets confirmed a deterioration in his condition, particularly in his breathing activities, and at the same time noticed that the animal was in pain and not breathing enough,” Courtois said.
“The suffering was obvious to the animal, so it was important to release its tension, and so we had to proceed with euthanasia,” she added.
Environmentalists had acknowledged that the plan to relocate the beluga would prove fatal to the mammal. But marine conservation group Sea Shepherd said it couldn’t have survived much longer in the freshwaters of the Seine.
The group and vets noted that the whale had responded to a cocktail of antibiotics and vitamins in recent days, leading them to hope it would recover once it was back in a saltwater environment.
A necropsy is planned on the whale, which weighed about 800 kilograms (1,764 pounds).
Rescuers had hoped to save the whale the fate of an orca that strayed into the Seine and died in May. In 2006, a bottlenose dolphin – nicknamed “Willy” – swam up the River Thames as far as London and died during a rescue attempt.
Another complicating factor during the beluga’s rescue attempt was the extreme heat that gripped France. Authorities tried to keep it cool and wet with soaked towels and moved it at nightfall when the temperature was lowest.
The sad end to a saga that has gripped France in recent days came after experts determined that the whale was “too weakened to be put back into the water,” said Guillaume Lericolais, the deputy prefect of France’s Calvados region. .
Rescuers have been trying to feed the whales without success since Friday. Sea Shepherd France said veterinary examinations after removal of the beluga from the river have shown that it has no digestive activity.
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